France and radical Islam: overcoming failed containment

The way to address the disaffection of young French Muslims lies in opening the political system to their democratic criticism and voices.

Amel Boubekeur
22 December 2015
Muslims rally against France's ban on public prayer in front of French Embassy, London. 23 September, 2011.

Muslims rally against France's ban on public prayer in front of French Embassy, London. 23 September, 2011. Demotix/Reporter #20299. All rights reserved.Around six weeks after the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November, France seems more confused than ever on how to contain the fascination that some of its young Muslims have for groups such as ISIS. An indication is the socialist government's promise, as part of its attempt to compete for votes with the National Front (the far-right party that come close to winning the recent regional elections), to “eradicate radical Islam”. Such declared ambitions miss the fact that such radicalisation is also partly linked to the governing elites' failure to gain the identification of young Muslims. The failure is now being compounded, as both ISIS (or Daesh) and a growing number of French political and media representatives now share the belief that French Muslims cannot, on the basis of their Islamic values, contribute to the political configuration of a secular nation.

The constant repetition, over the past fifteen years, of the idea that Islam is the main destabilising factor of France’s republic has encouraged the rise of a new kind of political radicalism. Yet those who make this claim are reluctant to treat such radicalism as a serious political phenomenon - whereas groups like ISIS put this radicalism at the centre of their propaganda, promising to new adherents a transformed status. No longer will the young Muslims attracted to their banner be "western imperialism’s slaves", but rather bold political adversaries who gain value through the fear they inspire.

For those who have reached the point of choosing terrorism, it is often too late to offer any alternative narrative. For the rest, however - those at some stage of the possible journey - it is crucial to understand what encourages them to disaffiliate from the national community they belong to. It will only be possible to contain their political radicalism if ways are found to renew the channels of political participation they have access to through the promotion of a culture of democratic criticism.

A fear of engagement

In interviews I have conducted with young people who were seduced by the idea of joining what they called "jihad" in Iraq or Syria, the search for an alternative political offer and the lack of identification with their representatives was a major pattern. I am not arguing here that all Muslims who feel marginalised become terrorists. But it must be stressed that since the early 1980s, successive French governments have disparaged Muslims’ political demands on the grounds that these risk incubating an "out-of-control" Islamic political community. A consequence of excluding Muslims' grievances as matters of general concern for the whole country is to harden the feeling among the youngest of them that they are considered illegitimate political actors. 

The problem is not solved by just allowing Muslims to get into representative politics. These are often appointed from the top, and so lack authority and credibility. When the first generation of French Muslims took to the streets for equality and against racism, in a big march in 1983, their aims were taken over by by SOS Racism, an in-house NGO of the then governing socialist party. After the unrest of 2005, people from the suburbs who were demanding equal access to economic opportunities and justice were offered a "diversity charter" that mainly succeeded in adding diversity to TV reality shows and the like. Today, France’s Muslim allies (such as Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia) are still given the responsibility of organising mosques, despite young Muslims’ calls for French imams and ways to learn seriously about Islamic theology and culture from certified universities. Growing islamophobia is still not confronted, while Muslims are accused of using this as a "victimisation" strategy.

No one, not even the far right, now denies that Muslims can be fully French, but it is still a taboo to acknowledge the public exercise of their duty to engage in political criticism. The majority of political parties and NGOs still refuse to have veiled women in their ranks. In August 2014, while the whole world was organising non-confessional demonstrations of support for Gaza’s victims of Israeli strikes, France chose to ban them on the grounds that "radical Islamists" could join in. While thousands were rallying in Paris to claim unity after the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, two teenage girls holding a little sheet of paper on which they had written "my beloved Prophet" were arrested by the police.

A hyper-individualist temptation

Many of the most politically disaffiliated young Muslims I interviewed deeply believed that "the west does not want Muslims to get into politics, so it can better crush us." The broken trust reflected in such statements is also created by the lack of coherence between the west's democracy-promotion and its foreign policies. Those young people repeatedly name and shame western governments for arming dictators who kill their civilian populations, being indifferent towards refugees fleeing war, or having been silent on images of torture at Abu Ghraib. Not being able to trust their state and immediate environment creates an ideological vacuum that groups like ISIS try to fill by providing them with simplistic explanations of the world’s conflicts.

These groups turn Muslims into threatened heroes who are the "the last obstacles to the secret 'new world order' that is to come" and against which only a "powerful" army like Daesh can offer protection. To those tempted by violence, this hyper-individualistic vision of the jihad is a way not to change the world but to save oneself by being on the side of the "winners" in the context of an impending apocalypse. The vision depicts those who promote a peaceful Islam in countries that "humiliate" and even "kill" Muslims are only "coconut Muslims" (brown-skinned apologists of white domination). The fact that western Muslims are largely ignored when their country conducts its domestic and foreign policies - but are then commanded to issue public statements that condemn terrorist attacks when they happen - is cynically used to consolidate this jihadi imaginary.

A renewed culture of political criticism

Fortunately, many French Muslims are promoting a third way between the two paths of an infantilising restraint of their political participation and a sectarian closure as people who become chosen through violence. Even more since the November attacks, many citizens are overcoming the malaise of affirming themselves as patriotic Muslims without waiting anymore for the media or political elite’s approval. Mosque volunteers organise "open doors" in the wave of sometimes abusive searches allowed by the current state of emergency. Others like Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the mother of a victim killed by a terrorist in 2013 who has conducted awareness campaigns on the danger of both anti-Muslim discrimination and terrorism, contribute to reintroducing some empathy between French citizens of various backgrounds.

Contrary to what the French education ministry has stated in its latest campaign designed to help teachers identify pupils in danger of being radicalised, “the contestation of the social environment” by Muslims (and even more by Muslim teenagers) is not a sign of “jihadi enlistment". When the state’s leadership is strong enough to allow dissatisfaction to be expressed without hate, it reinforces a sense of political ownership and responsibility in building a nation among its citizens. These are times where "securitarian" answers have proved unable to renew the channels of political participation and representation for people worldwide, and where these channels appear ever more meaningless. This makes it vital to reinforce a culture of democratic criticism as an absolute priority, which includes Muslims at its heart.

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